Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself

December 3, 2014 at 12:12 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Jacob finally gets a blessing he can believe this week, in the Torah portion Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a blessing usually means a transmission from God that improves the recipient’s lot in life. When a human being blesses someone, it is a request that God will transmit that blessing. God’s blessings grant people eventual success in practical affairs, including numerous descendants, wealth, land, authority over others, a good reputation, and becoming a by-word for other people’s blessings.

Hands raised in blessing

Hands raised in  blessing of Temple priests

Before this week’s Torah portion, Jacob receives three blessings: two from his father Isaac (one while Jacob is impersonating his brother Esau, and one as himself), and one blessing from God. But he still does not feel blessed—partly because of his guilt over cheating his brother, and partly because of his habit of calculating how to take advantage of others. (See my posts Toledot: To Bless Someone and Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.)

During his 20 years working for his uncle Lavan in Charan, Jacob acquires two of the material advantages promised in the blessings by Isaac and God: many children (eleven sons and a daughter), and material wealth (abundant flocks, herds, and servants). He does not yet own land, but God reminds him he must return to Canaan.

Even though he appears to be blessed by God, Jacob is afraid to go. First he fears that his uncle Lavan will prevent him from leaving. After the two men make a peace treaty, he is afraid that his brother will kill him and his family. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers to Seir, where Esau is living, as he travels west toward Canaan. When he reaches the Yabbok River, the messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him—with 400 armed men. Jacob frantically makes arrangements to prevent his whole family from being annihilated:

1) He divides his family and servants into two camps, hoping that if Esau’s men attack one camp, the other camp will escape.

2) He prays to God:

I am too small for all the kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I, I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. And You, You said: I will certainly be good to you, and I will set up your offspring like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted in its abundance. (Genesis 32:11-13)

Here Jacob expresses his own unworthiness for blessing, admits that God has aided him, and reminds God of the blessing from 20 years before. He views the blessings he has received so far as temporary and easily wiped out.

3) He sends gifts of livestock ahead to Esau, hoping to appease him.

4) He takes his family and servants across the river, then returns to the other side of the ford to spend the rest of the night alone—because he senses that there is one more thing he must do. Jacob may not know consciously that the fourth and final thing he needs to prepare for Esau’s arrival is a new blessing, a fourth blessing that comes from neither his father nor his god. But he waits alone in the dark.

And Jacob was left alone, vayei-aveik, a man, with him until the dawn rose. And he [the “man”] saw that he had not prevailed against him, so he touched the hollow of his hip; he struck the hollow of Jacob’s hip during hei-avko with him. (Genesis 32:25-26) 

Rembrandt, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"

Rembrandt, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”

vayei-aveik (וַיֵּאָבֵק) = and he wrestled (?); and he kicked up dust (?)

hei-avko (הֵאָבְקוֹ) = his wrestling (?); his kicking up dust (?)

(The verb אבק occurs only here in the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been translated as wrestling for at least  two thousand years, based on the description in this passage. But the root of the verb is shared with the noun avak (אָבַק) = cloud of fine dust.)

Elsewhere in the Torah a “man” appears out of nowhere, and later turns out to be a malakh Elohim, a messenger of God (sometimes translated as an “angel”). For example, earlier in Genesis, three “men” appear when Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, and they turn out to be divine messengers who announce that Sarah will give birth to Isaac. When a “man” appears to Jacob out of nowhere, we expect a divine emissary with a message for him.

The other “men” who appear in the Bible speak, walk, and appear to eat. But a “man” that wrestles is unique to this passage. Jacob and the “man” struggle all night without a victory.

Then he [the “man”] said: Let me go, for the dawn rises. But he [Jacob] said: I will not let you go unless you bless me. Then he said to him: What is your name?  And he said: Jacob. (Genesis 32:27-28)

For the first time, Jacob is asking for a blessing as himself, Jacob. Perhaps wrestling his opponent to a standstill has given him both courage and the feeling that he deserves recognition. In this case, both the message from God and the blessing he requests are a new name.

And he said: Your name will no longer be said “Jacob”, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with God and with men, and you prevailed. Then Jacob asked and said: Please tell your name.  And he said: Why do you ask for my name? And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:29-30)

Yisrael  (יִשׂרָאֵל) = Israel; probably yasar  = he contends for dominion, he rules + el = god; “He contends with God”, “God rules”. (Another possible etymology is yashar = upright, level, straight + el = god; “He is upright with God”, “God is straight”.)

sarita (שָׂרִתָ) = you contended for dominion; you ruled.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, “Because I saw God face to face, and my soul was spared”. And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip. (Genesis 32:31-32)

Through the rest of the book of Genesis, Jacob sometimes acts decisively and correctly, living up to his new name. At other times he is fearful, hesitant, and calculating, like the old Jacob. He does not always prevail. However, he does proceed as if he expects God to be on his side. He also gives more blessings to others than any other person in the Torah.

Many of us are like Jacob before he wrestled. We can see our wealth and success in the material world, yet we do not believe we have received a divine blessing. We do not feel the peace of being blessed.

When we are alone at night, does a “man” come to wrestle with us? Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner wrote in Wrestling Jacob that the two clauses in “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose” (Genesis 32:24) could be read as happening at the same time. In that case, the man Jacob is wrestling with is himself.

Klitsner also suggested that when Jacob’s wrestling partner says “you contended with God and with men, and you prevailed” the “man” is identifying himself as both divine and human.

May each one of us be blessed to wrestle with our own inner divine force, and to emerge with a blessing we can believe in, a blessing of the peace and personal authority that comes from being Yisrael, upright with God—even when we walk into the sunrise with a limp.

 

Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed

June 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Balak | 3 Comments
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Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.) He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balak leads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.

Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:

1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)

bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.

ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)

2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)

tzofim (צֹפִים) = lookouts, observers, watchmen.

3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Peor, the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)

peor (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth.  (The Head of Peor may be Mt. Nebo, which stands above the temple of Peor in Deuteronomy 34:6.)

Three Peaks: Version 1

In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)

First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a high shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.

For his second attempt, Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: “Stand up, Balak!” (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.

For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Peor. For Hirsch, Peor means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Peor, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)

Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.

According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Peor, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!

By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.

The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.

Three Peaks: Version 2

I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.

The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?

Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)

I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.

Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.

This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:

There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)Lion

Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)

In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.

I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Peor overlooking the desert.

The name Peor does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Peor, probably through illicit public intercourse. But a peor, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.

Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.

Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)

At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.

Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Peor, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.

A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.

Naso: Blessing Inside and Out

May 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Naso | Leave a comment
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May God bless you and protect you.

May God shine its face toward you and be gracious to you.

May God lift its face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)

This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” moves the hearts of many Jews when it is chanted in services today. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), as God gives Moses instructions on the way the priests should bless the Israelites.  After the three lines of blessing, the Torah concludes:

They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel; and I, Myself, will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)

In other words, the priests are charged with reciting the correct formula in front of the people.  Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the benevolence of the priests, but by the people hearing the words.

The words sound particularly moving in Hebrew because they follow a pattern. The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words.  Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.

But what do the words in the Threefold Blessing mean?

I offer one possible literal translation at the beginning of this post. A more standard translation would read “His face”, but Hebrew is a gendered language; there is no separate word for “it”.  When English speakers would use the words “it” or “its”, Hebrew uses a masculine or feminine pronoun (as a prefix or suffix). While all translations from Hebrew to English refer to a house (bayit) or a hand (yad) as “it”, most translators persist in referring to God as “he”. I think this tricks some English speakers into thinking God is male. So I prefer to use “it” for everything except humans and other animals.

On the other hand, I retained the word “face” in the opening translation, even though it is an anthropomorphism. The poetic ideas of God shining its face and lifting its face deserve attention.

Ya-eir, God, its face toward you, and be gracious to you.

ya-eir (יָאֵר) = may it/he shine, may it/he illuminate.

Some commentators interpret “May God shine its face” as “May God smile”. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) handed down a tradition that the phrase means “May He show you a smiling countenance, a radiant countenance.” In English, we say people’s faces “light up” or “beam” when they express happiness. It makes sense that if God is beaming with happiness at the Israelites, God would feel inclined to be gracious and grant them favors.

Other commentators have focused on the meaning of ya-eir as “may it illuminate”, i.e. light up something so it is visible—literally or figuratively. The 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interpreted the phrase as meaning: “May He open your eyes through the light of His countenance to see wonders from His Torah.” More generally, this part of the blessing might mean: May God enlighten you.

The third line of the Threefold blessing mentions God’s face again:

Yissa, God, its face toward you, and grant you peace.

yissa (יִשָּׂא) = may it/he lift up.

In the Hebrew Bible, lifting up your face to God means that you not ashamed or guilty. Ezra says: My God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you. (Ezra 9:6) And twice Job’s so-called comforters tell him that after he has repented for the sin they assume he committed, then he can lift up his face to God.

Rashi wrote that May God lift his countenance to you means May God suppress his anger.  This opinion is supported by the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah says that when God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:5)

A fallen face also indicates a frown when God tells Jeremiah to reassure the northern kingdom of Israel that it is on the right track. Jeremiah is to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. I do not hold on forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)

If a fallen face is an angry frown, then a lifted face might be a kind smile. Therefore this part of the Threefold Blessing might mean May God be kind to you.

Now we have the following translation:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God enlighten you and be gracious to you.

May God be kind to you and grant you peace.

If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then this Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to illuminate how the rules work; to give us the things we need in life graciously, in abundance; to treat us kindly regardless of what we deserve; and to arrange for us to live in peace.

However, there is plenty of evidence that our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, harmed, confused, starved, judged harshly, and/or miserable. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the universe will change.

On the other hand, if we imagine an internal God, a divine spark inside each of us, then the Threefold Blessing expresses the changes we want within ourselves. We want our deepest soul to bless us with joy and contentment; to protect us from our own undesirable impulses; to enlighten us so we grow in wisdom and understanding; to make us gracious to ourselves and to other people; to teach us kindness; and to give us peace of heart and mind.

May every one of us receive these blessings.

Beshallach: Hands Up

January 6, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Posted in Beshallach | 2 Comments
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What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?

Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward. If you raise one arm straight up from the shoulder instead, with the hand in line, palm forward, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak. When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.

What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.

In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone. (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)

When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,

…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)

vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.

Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.

The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.

God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out.  But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.

And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)

Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?

bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.

ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.

A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”

Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)

At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.

And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)

emunah (אֱמוּנָה)  = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)

Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?

Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.”  Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.

Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.

Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.

Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?

Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.

Toldedot: To Bless Someone

October 30, 2013 at 9:45 am | Posted in Toledot | 4 Comments
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For most of my life, the closest I came to giving or receiving a blessing was “Good luck!” When I converted to Judaism, I learned how to bless God as a way to express my appreciation for food and other good things in life. But the idea blessing another person never occurred to me.

Yes, I had read about Isaac blessing his sons in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”). I gathered that giving a blessing means both stating the good outcomes you want for another person, and calling on (or praying to) God to make your words come true. But I did not believe that the actual words mattered, or that a formal blessing would be any more effective than “Good luck!” I felt sorry for Isaac and his family for taking the blessing business so seriously. I was 48 before I discovered Jewish Renewal and the potential power of blessing.

What makes a blessing a living force instead of a formality?

The blessings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit use formal poetic language. Even when they are personal blessings, they focus material prosperity, fertility, and/or victory over enemies, and use customary phrases. For example, Rebecca’s mother and brother bless her as she leaves home to get married, saying: Our sister, may you become a thousand multitudes, and may your descendants take possession of their enemies’ gate. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:60)

Another kind of blessing in Genesis is “the blessing of Abraham”, a phrase the Torah uses to refer both to God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land of Canaan, and to the first blessing God gives Abraham:

I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And all the clans of the earth will find blessing through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac decides to give a blessing to Esau, the firstborn of his twin sons. The Torah does not say whether Isaac is planning to give Esau his personal blessing, or the blessing of Abraham, but it does say what part of himself Isaac hopes will deliver the blessing.

He said: I have grown old, and I do not know the day of my death. So now, please pick up your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me. Then make me tasty tidbits, the kind that I love, and bring them to me, and I will eat, so that my nefesh may bless you before I die. (Genesis/Bereishit 27:2-4)

nefesh = animating soul; seat of appetite, desire, yearning, instinct; person

Isaac wants the blessing to come from his nefesh, his instinctual self, without any interference from his conscious mind. Isaac loves Esau more than his other son, Jacob. But he wants his blessing to express the will of God as it moves through him, not his own conscious will.

When Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears him, she assumes he intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. She panics, not only because she loves Jacob more, but also because she knows that Jacob is the one who will carry on the worship of the God of Abraham.

Apparently Rebecca and Isaac are having communication problems, because she does not march into Isaac’s tent and straighten him out. Instead, she says to Jacob:

Hey, I heard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying: Bring game to me and make me tasty tidbits, and I will eat them, and I will bless you lifnei God, before my death. (Genesis 27:6-7)

lifnei = in the presence of, before

Rebecca interprets Isaac’s reference to blessing with his nefesh as blessing “in the presence of God”, and she associates this with God’s blessing of Abraham.

She quickly cooks some tasty tidbits from goat meat, and orders Jacob to bring them to his father. Jacob protests that he is not a hairy man, like his brother, so his blind father will know he is not Esau as soon as he touches him. So Rebecca disguises Jacob by dressing him in Esau’s spare clothes and fastening the skins of goat kids around his hands and neck.

Of course as soon as Jacob comes in and says, My father, Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and asks:

Who are you, my son? Then Jacob said to his father: I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you spoke to me. Get up, please, sit, and eat some of my game, so that your nefesh may bless me. (Genesis 27:18)

Jacob thinks like his father. He hears Rebecca’s “in the presence of God”, and interprets it in terms of Isaac’s nefesh!

Isaac tests his son several times, unable to believe that this man with Jacob’s voice is really Esau, no matter how hairy his hands feel. Then he decides to bless the son in front of him anyway. Now it is even more important that the blessing come from God, so he repeats:

I will eat some of the game of my son, so that my nefesh may bless you. (Genesis 27:25)

After Isaac has eaten and received a kiss from his son, he delivers the blessing:

May God give to you from the dew of the heavens, and from the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. May peoples serve you, and may nations bow down to you. Be a leader to your kinsmen, and may the descendants of your mother bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and may those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:28-29)

The blessing begins with the standard themes of material abundance and victory over other nations. Then Isaac adds part of God’s blessing of Abraham:  Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you. He does not say the other part of the blessing of Abraham—that he will have many descendants, and they will possess the whole land of Canaan—until later in the Torah portion, when he gives a blessing to Jacob as Jacob.

I think that Isaac gives Jacob-in-disguise part of the blessing of Abraham because he is indeed speaking from his instinctual self, channeling divine inspiration without thinking it through. His words naturally mirror the words of the blessing of Abraham.

When his other son shows up a moment later with his own tasty tidbits, Isaac recognizes Esau’s voice, and comes out of his trance and back to earth. He trembles, partly because he knows he cannot repeat the same blessing to Esau, and partly because he realizes that the blessing he just gave Jacob is indeed an expression of God’s will.

Then Isaac trembled, full of fear, and said: Who is it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me and I ate everything before you came and I blessed him? He must be truly blessed! (Genesis 27:33)

Is it possible to channel a blessing from God, as Isaac apparently channels his first blessing? I do not know. But when I was 48 and I wandered into a Jewish Renewal service, I saw the rabbi of P’nai Or of Portland, Aryeh Hirschfield zt”l, blessing people. I could tell he was connecting with some inner source of energy, and the people he blessed were taking in that energy.

Is that kind of blessing from the instinctual self, the nefesh, confirmed by God and therefore bound to come true? Again, I do not know. What I do know is that a blessing given with what seems to be divine energy makes a big impression on both giver and receiver. No doubt the words of the blessing are absorbed deep into the subconscious mind of the one blessed, where they affect one’s outlook and behavior for years to come. That alone might make a blessing come true.

May everyone who needs a blessing be truly blessed. And may everyone who sees the need for a blessing be inspired to give a true blessing.

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